Water vapor discovered in atmosphere of hot Jupiter

Determining the composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere is a tricky endeavor. Water vapor has been detected in the atmospheres of a few exoplanets using two techniques: examining how light is scattered in a planet’s atmosphere when it passes in front of its host star, and imaging a planet that is far enough from its host star. Unfortunately, these techniques are not applicable to many exoplanets.

A new study led by California Institute of Technology graduate student Alexandra Lockwood has employed a novel technique to detect water vapor in the atmosphere of a “hot Jupiter”, a gas giant orbiting extremely close to its parent star. The hot Jupiter in question is tau Boötis b; previous research has identified carbon monoxide in its atmosphere.

According to a Caltech press release, Lockwood and colleagues adapted a technique known as radial velocity (RV) detection. The RV method ascertains the motion of a star attributable to the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet. In this scenario, the star’s motion is opposite the orbital motion of the planet, and the star’s light shifts in wavelength. The larger or closer a planet is to its parent star, the more pronounced the shift.

Although the RV method traditionally utilizes the visible spectrum, Lockwood and colleagues adapted it to infrared light to reveal tau Boötis b’s orbit and analyzed the wavelength shifts with spectroscopy to determine exactly which wavelengths of light are being emitted. The team pored over spectroscopic data on tau Boötis b obtained by the Near Infrared Echelle Spectrograph at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Because different molecular compounds emit different wavelengths of light, these data could shed further light on the planet’s atmospheric composition.

The team’s analysis showed that the atmosphere of tau Boötis b does contain water vapor. Their new technique has the added benefit of calculating the planet’s actual mass, rather than an estimated minimum mass as in prior studies. In order to determine the planet’s atmospheric makeup, Lockwood and colleagues had to first ascertain the relative motions of the planet and its star. This information, combined with the mass of the star, allow the mass the planet to be calculated.

For now, the modified RV method is applicable to only hot Jupiters. However, the team will continue to analyze the data on tau Boötis b and hope to widen their research to include cooler planets and dimmer stars as telescopes and spectrographs advance. The new research has been published in the February 24 online issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


SpaceX Falcon rocket outfitted with landing gear before ISS mission

As part of its dedication to the goal of developing reusable rockets, the commercial company SpaceX has equipped one of its Falcon 9 rockets with landing gear that, when deployed, would span approximately 60 feet. According to, the rocket will blast off with an unmanned Dragon cargo craft sitting atop it on March 16. The Dragon capsule, also developed by SpaceX, will rendezvous with the International Space Station.

Although the landing gear will be fully installed prior to the March 16 flight, the Falcon 9 will not deploy it. Instead, the rocket will plummet into the ocean; SpaceX intends to carry out further tests to confirm their ability to control the rocket’s trajectory and orientation at speeds above and below the speed of sound. The landing gear could act as a stabilizer, akin to the fins on the retired space shuttles, preventing the Falcon 9 from spinning out of control.

In September 2013, SpaceX managed to reignite the first stage of an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 twice during flight. After delivering Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite into orbit, this particular rocket was unable to make a soft landing in the ocean, possibly due to the lack of stabilizing landing gear.

The March 16 mission will be the third time a Dragon cargo ship launched on a Falcon 9 rocket will deliver supplies to the space station. NASA has contracted with SpaceX for a total of 12 such missions. SpaceX is also developing the reusable Grasshopper rocket, which has accomplished a series of higher and more intricate test maneuvers in the last eighteen months. The Grasshopper project is a major step towards SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s vision of participating in human missions to Mars.


NASA announces discovery of hundreds of alien planets

According to a February 21 press release, NASA will announce the latest discoveries by the Kepler Space Telescope on Wednesday, February 26. The agency will convene a teleconference for members of the media on Wednesday; the teleconference will be available for the public to hear live on UStream.

The briefing will feature participants from several institutions, including Douglas Hudgins, an exoplanet exploration program scientist at NASA’s Astrophysics Division; Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center; Jason Rowe, a research scientist at the SETI Institute; and Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kepler was launched in 2009 to search for Earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zones of their host stars. According the NASA Exoplanet Archive, Kepler has detected 3,841 planets, of which 1,035 have been confirmed. Those confirmed exoplanets orbit 774 stars; 179 of those star systems contain multiple planets. The exoplanets found by Kepler include a range of sizes, compositions, and orbital distances.

Unfortunately, Kepler is longer able to orient itself. Two of Kepler’s four gyroscopic reaction wheels, which keep the telescope pointed exactly where it needs to be, have failed, the first in July 2012 and the second in May 2013. Kepler needs three viable wheels to continue its exoplanet search. Kepler had concluded its primary science mission in November 2012 and begun a four-year extension prior to the loss of the second wheel.

However, NASA engineers are developing new missions that Kepler can carry out with two functional wheels. Kepler’s thrusters still work; in tandem with the two remaining functional wheels, these could allow the telescope to undertake some missions. NASA’s future plans for Kepler, dubbed K2, will vie for funding at the NASA Senior Review board later this year.


FDA changing nutrition labels, focusing on calories

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed changes to requirements for Nutrition Facts labels.  The FDA is attempting to respond to changes in diet and health status of Americans since the Nutrition Facts label was first introduced in 1993 to provide important nutritional information on food packages.

Changes include the fact that people are eating larger serving sizes.  Rates of obesity, heart disease and stroke remain high.  Also, experts have more information about the relationship between nutrients and the risk of chronic diseases.  In order to deal with these leading public health issues, the new label aims to bring attention to calories and serving sizes, which are important in addressing these problems.

According to CNN, if approved, the new labels would place a bigger emphasis on total calories, added sugars and certain nutrients, such as Vitamin D and potassium.  The FDA is also proposing changes to serving size requirements in an effort to more accurately reflect what people usually eat or drink.  For example, if a person buys a 20-ounce soda, they are probably not going to stop drinking at the 8-ounce mark.  The new rules would require that entire soda bottle to be one serving size, which would make calorie counting simpler.

Also, the FDA would update Daily Values for various nutrients.  Daily Values are used to calculate the Percent Daily Value on the label, which helps consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total diet.  In addition, the Percent Daily Value would be shifted to the left of the label. FDA wants to help consumers visually and quickly put nutrient information in context.

Furthermore, the amounts of potassium and vitamin D would be required on the label.  Vitamin D is important for healthy bones, especially among women and the elderly, and potassium helps to lower blood pressure and prevent hypertension.  These items have not been previously required to be included, but they would be added where consumers already see the listings for calcium and iron.

The proposed changes are currently available for public comment, after which the FDA will make a final determination and adopt any changes to the proposal.  The changes to the Nutrition Facts label are split into two proposed rules, both of which are available for a 90-day comment period.  After the rules are finalized, the food industry will likely be given two years to come into compliance.


Experimental '3-parent babies' being considered by FDA

We could possibly be on the horizon of designer babies if the controversial “3-parent in vitro fertilization” is allowed by the FDA.

U.S. medical advisers are contemplating whether or not there is any scientific justification to allowing such experimental procedures to help prevent serious genetic defects like muscular dystrophy and upper respiratory defects. Such a treatment would take DNA from 3 individuals, and allow a woman to give birth to a baby without the passing on of diseases of the mitochondria.

With the 3-parent IVF procedure, one man donates sperm, including all its DNA, while the woman donates the egg and most of its DNA. If harmful genetic mutations in the mitochondria are carried by the would-be mother, such unhealthy mitochondria would be swapped with healthy cells from a second woman in order to prevent the baby from inheriting a potentially debilitating and life-threatening disease.

After two days of hearings, scientists presented their studies to the FDA, where the decision of whether or not such a procedure is safe enough to allow clinical trials to begin will soon be made.

After the hearings, critics raised concerns that not only is such a technique potentially harmful for women and children born through this 3-parent technique, but that the lines would be blurred when it comes to taking the “designer” effect too far.

Art Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, believes this procedure is ethically sound, potentially eliminating life threatening diseases. Yet he is also aware of the fine line between therapy and “genetically modified babies.”

“Where we get into the sticky part is, what if you get past transplanting batteries and start to say, ‘While we’re at it, why don’t we make you taller, stronger, faster or smarter?'” said Caplan, according to CNN.

Others are more confident in the ethics behind the 3-parent IVF technique. Susan Solomon, director of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, says no modifications to existing genes are involved with this technique. “What we’re doing is, without at all changing the DNA of the mother, just allowing it to grow in an environment that isn’t sick,” said Solomon, according to news site.


Get eye-level with sharks in this amazing video

Sharks are both highly feared and barely understood. Of course, that’s due in part to the fact that many of them are large, mysterious beasts capable turning us into hamburger meat at their whim. But given that, why don’t we know more about them? If you ask scientists from the University of Hawaii and University of Tokyo, it might be because we’ve never tried to see things from their point of view.

Using high-tech sensors and video equipment attached to (and ingested by) sharks, scientists are able for the first time to get a first-person perspective of how sharks eat, swim and interact with one another. It sheds new light on seemingly simple questions like “where do sharks go?” and “what do they do when they get there?”

“What we are doing is really trying to fill out the detail of what their role is in the ocean,” said Carl Meyer, an assistant researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It is all about getting a much deeper understanding of sharks’ ecological role in the ocean, which is important to the health of the ocean and, by extension, to our own well-being.”

Scientists are also interested in what sharks eat (provided it’s not us), and to learn more about that they’re experimenting with small objects that can be ingested by both sharks and their prey. In doing so, they hope to be able to track ingestion and digestion in sharks, which in turn will tell researchers more about when, where, what, and how much sharks are eating.

The footage seen in the video is unprecedented and shows sharks swimming in schools, interacting with other fishes and even other species of sharks. One new discovery was just how much sharks relied on powered swimming, rather than gliding. It was previously believed that large ocean predators like sharks were more content to amble along at a slower pace.

“These instrument packages are like flight data recorders for sharks,” Meyer said. “They allow us to quantify a variety of different things that we haven’t been able to quantify before.”

“It has really drawn back the veil on what these animals do and answered some longstanding questions,” he added.

Because sharks are at the top of the oceanic food chain, understanding them better is crucial to preserving not only them, but the entire underwater ecosystem. Hopefully, greater understanding will make it easier to protect ourselves from sharks (already a low risk) but, more importantly, protect them from us.

The researchers on these studies will present oral presentations about their work on Thursday, 27 February 2014 at the Ocean Sciences Meeting. The meeting is taking place from 23 – 28 February at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.


MIT: Tree branches make great, cheap water filters

A cool new discovery from scientists out of MIT may have you rethinking the decision to buy that expensive charcoal water purifier. Provided you choose the right kind of plant, pouring untreated water through a bark-free stick should strip it of any bacteria, making for perfectly potable water.

The researchers say that sapwood, chosen for its pore size and xylem tissue (used to transport sap), is capable of removing over 99 percent of all E. coli and other bacteria from a given water sample. The method they tested is capable of purifying up to four liters of water per day, which meets the fluid intake needs of the average human.

“Today’s filtration membranes have nanoscale pores that are not something you can manufacture in a garage very easily,” says Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “The idea here is that we don’t need to fabricate a membrane, because it’s easily available. You can just take a piece of wood and make a filter out of it.”

The discovery could be a boon for rural communities, where more advanced filtration methods might not be readily available. In truth, the low cost and easy accessibility of the sapwood method makes it an attractive option for just about anyone. It requires neither the expense of large-scale chemical purification nor the massive amounts of energy needed to decontaminate via heat.

The secret to sapwood’s filtering properties lies in the porous xylem tissue, which evolved to carry sap through the tree all the way from root to tip through a system of vessels and pores. The tiny pores allow sap to travel from vessel to vessel while at the same time preventing bubble formation. When tested in a lab, the filtration was so effective that even red food die was stripped out of the water in the process.

“Plants have had to figure out how to filter out bubbles but allow easy flow of sap,” Karnik observes. “It’s the same problem with water filtration where we want to filter out microbes but maintain a high flow rate. So it’s a nice coincidence that the problems are similar.”

Karnik notes that while sapwood can trap and filter nearly every species of bacteria, which measure a minimum of 200 nanometers, most viruses are much smaller and could escape the filter. The team still has more research to do, including continuing the search for the optimum plant and overcoming barriers like keeping the wood moist (or drying it while retaining the xylem tissue).

“There’s huge variation between plants,” Karnik says. “There could be much better plants out there that are suitable for this process. Ideally, a filter would be a thin slice of wood you could use for a few days, then throw it away and replace at almost no cost. It’s orders of magnitude cheaper than the high-end membranes on the market today.”

The full study will appear in a paper published this week in the journal PLoS ONE.


RHOC filming overseas — Hong Kong and Bali!

The drama queens from Bravo’s reality television series “The Real Housewives of Orange County” [RHOC] are taking a trip around the world, according to a report from Wetpaint.

Star Vicki Gunvalson, who’s been with the show since the first season, has been posting photos of herself at the Honk Kong International Airport with fellow cast members Tamra Barney and Heather Dubrow, along with newcomers Lizzie Rovsek, Shannon Beador, and Danielle Gregoriohas.

Heather also posted a picture with the caption, “Later, Hong Kong #andawaywego #RHOC.” Then she posted another photo with the word ”Bali” on the online map, writing, “Last leg of the trip!!!”

After season 8, a major shakeup ensued and longtime cast members Alexis Bellino and Gretchen Rossi were ousted from the show. The only original cast member remaining was Vicki Gunvalson.

The new additions to the cast look like they’ll fit right in. Danielle Gregoriohas is an interior designer and Shannon Beador is a mom with three kids and a mulitmillionaire husband. Another newcomer, Lizzie Rovsek, a former model and beauty queen who was crowned Miss Kentucky in 2002, has her own line of high-end designer swimsuits.

Production of the new season is reportedly underway and some episodes will be filmed overseas.

“Filming has started and they’re already drumming up drama. It’s sort of silly and is definitely amped up just for the cameras, but it’s going to be really great to watch,” a source told Radar Online, adding that newbies Lizzie and Danielle are “fitting in perfectly because they love to fight as much as the other women.”



Doctors slam powerful new pain pill

A new opioid recently approved by the FDA could take the pain-killer addiction epidemic to new levels.

As reported by CNN, the controversial drug Zohydro is being lobbied against by over 40 health care consumer and addiction treatment groups. They are urging the FDA to renounce the approval of the prescription pain killer.

Zohydro was approved last fall by the FDA, and is used to treat chronic pain. It’s set to be made available to patients via prescription in March.

In a letter written by the coalition and addressed to FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, lobbyists point out that the U.S. is in the midst of a serious drug epidemic, largely fueled by physicians overprescribing opioids to their patients. According to such coalition groups, the last thing the U.S. needs is another dangerous, high-dose opioid.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, addiction expert and president of the advocacy group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, is more candid in his plea. “It’s a whopping dose of hydrocodone packed in an easy-to-crush capsule. It will kill people as soon as it’s released,” Dr. Kolodny said in a statement.

The overwhelming concern from all advocates against the release of this drug is its potency and abuse potential. Particularly at higher doses, Zohydro will magnify already-increasing overdose numbers, and could potentially be the next Oxycontin.

Yet Zogenix, Zohydro’s maker, says the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks. “We do not expect the introduction of Zohydro ER (extended release) to increase the overall use of opioids,” said Dr. Brad Galer, Zogenix’s executive VP and chief medical officer, in a statement.

Galer explains that only a small group of physicians with plenty of experience with opioid prescriptions will be focused on, thereby ensuring that only applicable patients suffering from chronic pain will be prescribed Zohydro.

Labeling on the drug will feature warnings concerning misuse, abuse and addiction. Zogenix is currently developing an abuse-preventive variant of Zohydro, which should become available within the next three years.

Despite such precautions made by Zogenix, coalitions against the drug are still extremely concerned, believing that even though a small number of patients may benefit from Zohydro, it’s still unsafe for the general public.


Stunning Google Street View pictures reveal polar bears in their natural habitat

Churchill Manitoba has been called the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Google is celebrating by mapping the remote town on International Polar Bear Day.

As the Arctic melts and sea ice diminishes, polar bears are facing shrinking habitat and hunting grounds. According to Polar Bears International, February 27 is “International Polar Bear Day.” The group is encouraging people to participate by turning their thermostat up or down a few degrees, depending on where they live, to save energy and reduce carbon emissions.

Polar Bears International is also working with Google to help people better understand and connect with the bears by seeing them in their natural habitat. Google has strapped its cameras to a tundra buggy to capture new images of Churchill Manitoba, and the landscape of Cape Churchill and Wapusk National Park. With no roads leading to Churchill, Google, presumably, had to fly the equipment in.

“I think the whole thing is going to be really exciting,” Polar Bears International executive director Krista Wright, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “You have the opportunity to see polar bears in natural habitat. There’s imagery of sparring bears – this behaviour that we see with male bears where they stand up on their hind legs and kind of play fight. There’s images of a mom nursing a cub.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are currently 20-25,000 wild polar bears, with approximately 15,000 living in Canada. The bears are listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) ‘Red List’ of Threatened Species, listed as ‘threatened’ under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) and listed as a species of ‘Special Concern’ under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA).

According to Wright, using Google Street View does more than take cuddly bear photos. It also serves a scientific monitoring purpose. According to here statement, “Bringing Street View to Canada’s tundra establishes a baseline record of imagery associated with specific geospatial data—information that’s critical if we’re to understand and communicate the impact of climate change on their sensitive ecosystem. As we work to safeguard their habitat, PBI can add Street View imagery to the essential tools we use to assess and respond to the biggest threat facing polar bears today.”

“We also use the Google Maps API to support our Bear Tracker, which illustrates the frozen odyssey these bears embark on every year. As winter approaches and the sea ice freezes over, polar bears head out onto Hudson Bay to hunt for seals. Bear Tracker uses of satellite monitors and an interactive Google Map to display their migration for a global audience.”

In addition to the new Street View footage, Google has published a Views tour which will show you some of the images their cameras captured, without a person having to virtually scour the tundra with Street View.

According to Google, “As climate change becomes increasingly more apparent, polar bears are seen as the barometer to measure changes in the environment. The impact of the warming of our planet can be clearly seen in Churchill, Canada. This quiet town, set on the shores of western Hudson Bay, is a place where polar bears and humans coexist until the sea ice forms and the polar bears can travel on to the bay to hunt seals, their main prey.”

street view Google